Editor’s Note: This is part two of a five part biographical series on Barney Gill by Russ Crawford. He first encountered Barney Gill while researching his book on American football in France. Gill’s story didn’t make it into the book and was too good not to share. Click here to read part one, and check back next Thursday for part three.
By Russ Crawford
When last I posted, Barney Gill had been a high school and college star before flunking out and being taken in the draft (the military draft). He would then become immersed in the world of military sports, which, at that time, was the analogue of college sports for those serving their nation.
Along with high-profile intersectional matches such as the Oyster Bowl, military football is another once thriving part of the sporting world that has faded away. The military began using sport for a variety of purposes, including keeping soldiers and sailors in shape and occupied in good, clean activities as early as the Spanish-American War of 1898.[i] Football was added to the repertoire of sports promoted by the military and played by soldiers prior to the 1917 American entry into World War I. During that conflict, hundreds of games were played for the amusement of the troops in camps set up by the Young Men’s Christian Athletic Association, The Knights of Columbus, and other similar organizations.[ii] After the war, some 75,000 doughboys took part in a massive football tournament played as part of the Inter-Allied Games held in 1919.[iii] The 89th Division, made up of soldiers from Kansas and Nebraska, defeated the 36th Division built around National Guard units from Texas and Oklahoma by a score of 14 to 6 in front of around 15,000 fans, including General John J. Pershing.[iv]
The military continued its love affair with football during World War II, and thousands of servicemen played the game at training centers in the United States and in camps around the world. The best football in the United States was typically found at military posts such as the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Its V-5 Training program there required those who wished to be Navy pilots to play football as part of their training, with the philosophy that the sport was the best training for building the aggressive teamwork necessary to survive and defeat the nation’s German and Japanese enemies.[v]
Following the war, the U.S. military maintained a presence worldwide, and wherever there were military installations, there were football teams. Soldiers, sailors, and after the U.S. Air Force became a separate branch in 1947, airmen played the game. In Europe, teams in the U.S. Army and Air Force were divided into USAREUR and USAFE leagues, respectively.[vi]
Interviewees asked what motivated the expenditure of so much money on athletic programs and the staging of so many football games during the heights of the Cold War, we unanimous in their answers. To a man, they argued that the games were staged and money spent on a four season sporting program because, along with the other sports, football and the spectacle surrounding it served to remind service personnel and their dependents of the life they had left at home.[vii] But that was not the sole reason.
With their primary goal of defending Western Europe from a possible Soviet invasion, the military also envisioned football as a propaganda opportunity; presenting the populations they were protecting with a contrasting vision of the freedom that they saw at the core of the American Way of Life with the tyranny of the Soviet Bloc. This was made explicit in the messages that General Bruce C. Clarke, Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe, and General Truman H. Landon, Commander in Chief of the United States Air Force in Europe provided, with German translations, in the program for the 1961 Freedom Bowl played at Südwest Stadium in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
The first page of the program held a message from Heinrich Lübke, the President of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, who thanked the Army and Air Force all-star teams who would play the game and donate the proceeds to relieve the condition of refugees who had fled the Soviet dominated Democratic Republic of (East Germany).[viii] The messages by the two American generals followed on the next page, and they pulled no punches.
Clarke hit the line first telling German and American fans that:
…Naming this event the “Freedom Bowl” was most appropriate. This game, featuring the friendly football rivalry between the Army and the Air Force, demonstrates America’s military cooperation in support of the Free World. In giving the proceeds of this all-American contest to the Federal Republic of Germany to aid refugees from Communism, both Services are in a very real sense aiding the cause of free men everywhere…[ix]
Landon followed, declaring in the same manner that:
…This game provides our European friends and neighbors with a clear picture of American standards of competition, sportsmanship, and fair play. It demonstrates how American of differing economic and ethnic backgrounds can mold themselves into smoothly operating teams, as effective on the sports field as they have proved themselves in maintaining a strong deterrent power for peace.
Of particular interest to our German guests is the fact that the Freedom Bowl serves to show that Americans truly have “heart,” the desire to help others in a time of need. For this game is being played to benefit those who have fled, with little or no personal property to the freedom of the West from the tyranny of Communism…[x]
The manner in which soldiers and airmen from differing ethnic backgrounds could come together in common cause was demonstrated by the racial makeup of the teams contending that day. Of the sixty-nine players who played in the inter-service championship game, twenty were African American. During a time when American race relations remained an important part of Soviet Cold War propaganda[xi] that many Germans had likely been exposed to, the game was also a chance to refute that narrative, at least on the football field.
However, perhaps the most important factor determining the quality of the football team on a particular base the personal wishes of the post or base commanding officer (C.O.) to build esprit des corps and in many cases, to be able to lord it over their fellow commanders. Laon AFB, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, had as their C.O. Colonel Chuck Hill, an officer who was a perfect example of a commander who wanted a winning team, and who would go to significant lengths to ensure that he had one. Jerry Curtright, the coach of the Laon (pronounced lone) Rangers, remembered that Hill was very interested in sports and told the coach that if he “ever needed or wanted anything” [for the football program], “let me know.”[xii] Hill’s predecessor Colonel Robert Gideon also placed emphasis on having a winning team as part of his command. When the 66th TACRECON (Tactical Reconnaissance) Wing moved from Sembach, Germany to Laon in 1958, Gideon made sure that the football team, which had placed third in the USAFE finals the previous year, made the move as an intact unit. Those veteran players would cement the Ranger’s place in the top echelon of the USAFE conference finals for the next several years.[xiii]
Curtright also remembered this level of command interest worked to his teams’ detriment in a 1961 championship game played in England against Alconbury AFB. With the score tied in overtime, Curtright who doubled as a running back scored what his team thought was the winning touchdown, only to have it called back by a penalty for having too many men in the backfield. Years later, he recalled meeting the backfield referee, who told him the referees had been “briefed” by the base commander that the home team “would win the game no matter what.”[xiv]
Gill would first experience the emphasis that the Cold War military placed on football playing in training centers in the U.S. He would later go on to coach teams both at bases located in the Zone of the Interior (the U.S.), at West Point, and then in France. His career, like the fortunes of base football teams, would be molded by one of those football-obsessed officers that he would meet during the early years of his career as a soldier/player/coach.
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, with an evolving focus on nontraditional practitioners of gridiron football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published one book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, and has another, Le Football: The History of American Football in France that will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016.
[i] Wanda Ellen Wakefield, Playing to Win : Sports and the American Military, 1898-1945 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997) 2
[ii] Douglas L. Clubine, “’Better than they were before’; athletics and American military preparedness during the Great War,” unpublished Masters Thesis, East Lansing: Michigan State University, 83
[iii] Steven W. Pope, “An Army of Athletes: Playing Fields, Battle Fields, and the American Sporting Experience, 1890-1920,” Journal of Military History, July 1995, 452
[iv] Doran L. Cart, “Kansas Football ‘Over There,’” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Autumn, 2006, 197-198
[v] Wilbur D. Jones, Football, Navy, War!: How Lend-lease Players Saved the Game of College Game and Helped Win World War II, Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2009, 173
[vi] Olivier Rival, “Les Premiers pas du foot us, en France,” Elitefoot, http://www.elitefoot.com/france/archives/60th/histoire.htm (Accessed on November 25, 2013)
[vii] Interview with Barney Gill, 10 Nov. 2011, as well as interviews with several other ex-players and coaches that served in France during the era
[viii] “1961 Freedom Bowl,” Printed by the Heidelberg Post, December 9, 1961, 2
[ix] Ibid, 3
[x] Ibid, 3
[xi] Russ Crawford, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), 198
[xii] Interview with Jerry Curtright, conducted by Russ Crawford via telephone, Ada, OH, 9 January 2011
[xiii] Stan Swift, “Sembach at Work,” Sembach Veterans, http://www.sembachveterans.org/workers31.htm (Accessed on September 1, 2013)
[xiv] Jerry Curtright, “The General’s Yellow Flag,” Laon Air Police Association Newsletter, furnished by Thomas Buranski, editor via email on 6 January 2012